Suicidal thoughts and emotion competence

J Clin Exp Neuropsychol. 2016 Oct;38(8):887-99. doi: 10.1080/13803395.2016.1172558. Epub 2016 May 12.


Background: During deployment and upon returning home, veterans experience emotional challenges that test their social and psychological adaptation and place them at risk for suicidal thinking. Individual variability in skill-based capacity to adaptively perceive, understand, correctly use, and manage emotions (called emotional competence) may play a role in the development of psychological suffering and suicidal thinking. Based on research in healthy and clinical samples, poor emotional competence was predicted to be associated with suicidal thinking among returning veterans.

Method: Participants were selected from the W. F. Caveness Vietnam Head Injury Study (VHIS) registry, which in the late 1960s began prospectively assessing 1221 veterans). The study sample was composed of veterans examined between 2003 and 2006 and included 185 participants who at the time of assessment with the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) did (N= 46) or did not endorse (N= 139) suicidal thinking then or during the previous two weeks and received performance-based measures of emotional competence (Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test; MSCEIT, Version 2.0) and theory of mind. MSCEIT subtests and theory of mind tasks were condensed via principal component analysis: Component 1 (Emotion Processing) included use, understand, and manage emotions tasks, and Component 2 (Emotion Perception) included perceive emotions.

Results: Veterans endorsing suicidal thoughts showed poorer emotion processing whereas emotion perception and theory of mind tasks did not show significant group effects. In addition, veterans who endorsed thoughts of suicide were deployed at a younger age, had lower education, and tended to report more negative experiences in social interactions upon return to the United States.

Conclusions: The capacity to understand, use, and manage emotionally charged stimuli and situations may represent risk factors for suicidal thinking among veterans.

Keywords: Emotional intelligence; Mayer–Salovey–Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test; Psychopathology; Suicide; Veterans.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological / physiology*
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Intelligence Tests
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Social Perception*
  • Suicidal Ideation*
  • Theory of Mind / physiology
  • Veterans / psychology*